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Why I've Spent 17 Years Studying the First Mexican American Novelist: María Amparo Ruiz de Burton (1832-1895)

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Ruiz de Burton reminds me of my tia Chata (not her real name) who was aware of racial and gendered oppression but could not see how she contributed to this oppression.  How could tia Chata tell me that our gente deserved to be treated equally in this country while also telling me that Black people did not?  How could she tell me that I could grow up to do anything and yet say my goal was to marry and obey my husband?  How could she teach me to be proud of our Mexican indigenous heritage and then later tell me not to stay out in the sun too long because I might begin to look like an Indian? When I'd discuss this paradox with friends, I'd find out that some of their Latina/o relatives or parents would transmit similar conflicting directives.  They would all nod their heads when I'd say, "Tia Chata said she was relieved when her grandson was born 'guero' and not dark so he wouldn't look Black or Indian."  Intraracial racism and gendered oppression has continued to be both troubling and fascinating to me.  Fascinating because I seek to understand all the intricate sociological, familial, psychological, and political history that would lead Tia Chala not to question her own oppositional thinking. 

Enter a recovered and newly edited Ruiz de Burton novel in 1992 when I was just beginning graduate school. Here was a woman whose nineteenth-century writings reminded me of what tia Chata was saying in the twentieth.  After reading Ruiz de Burton's novels, The Squatter and the Don and Who Would Have Thought It? I realized that she had to be one of the focal points of my academic study.  By studying her, I began to understand how Tia Chata--and all of us--are complicit in racist and gendered narratives.

Discussing additional works of writers/theorists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble; Peggy McIntosh; Paula Gunn Allen; Joy Harjo; Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism; Chela Sandoval The Methodology of the Oppressed; Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights were key to analyzing Ruiz de Burton's work.   

Today, her work is extremely important given the public conversations regarding Obama's presidency, our conflicts abroad. As for my tia Chata, I cannot change my tia--only love her. The only person I can change is myself and that will take a lifetime.  


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